“I talk as if there’s a lot of poetry in me, there isn’t. I am neither an artist nor a poet. I’m a photographer.”
Legendary British photojournalist Don McCullin worked for The Sunday Times from 1966 to 1983 and over the course of his career he risked his life to cover wars and humanitarian disasters across the globe. Sibling documentary filmmakers Jacqui and David Morris direct their exclusive and engrossing portrait of McCullin’s illustrious career and reveal the man behind the photographs that brought home the horrors of war.
Biographical documentaries are popular among filmmakers, but the vast majority are created posthumously as a memoir to a particular historical figure. However, Don McCullin is in his late-seventies, still taking photographs and still alive to share the incredible personal accounts that are the subject of this documentary – and it’s this unusual access that sets McCullin apart from other documentary biographies. As the interviewer, a silent party throughout, Jacqui Morris utilises McCullin as the sole voice for the majority of the film. By definition this is another biographical documentary, but its innovative presentation results in it playing out like a moving autobiography.
The narrative is constructed from a series of extended interviews with McCullin, and each interview is intercut with powerful images from McCullin’s portfolio as well as rarely seen archive footage from the warzones, conflicts and famine-stricken countries where he has worked. The documentary provides McCullin a platform to contextualise his photographs as well as to reveal some of the shocking experiences that he was prohibited or refrained from photographing. As McCullin shares his stories, often in excruciating detail, he emerges as not only a fascinating character entirely deserving of a documentary but also as a man of integrity and startling honesty. There will be few cinematic moments this year nearly as moving as when McCullin reveals how he has been psychologically traumatised by the things he has witnessed.
While the Morris siblings’ approach is certainly of great benefit to the film, it also creates a problem. Throughout the course of the film there is only one interviewee other than McCullin, Sir Harold Evans, who was editor of The Sunday Times when McCullin was their star photographer. Evans’ brief appearance offers valuable insight into how McCullin’s work impacted the journalism industry, but there is a distinct lack of voice or opinion from McCullin’s personal life. The film does mention how his marriage was ruined by his affiliation with war-time journalism and perhaps the absence of people outside of his career is an indicator of how greatly his career affected his life.
This is merely a minor flaw in what is an otherwise compelling and insightful documentary. The devastating stories and unsettling photographs ensure it isn’t an easy watch, but it is an unmissable and unforgettable experience. The documentary will be remembered for offering insight into a remarkable career the likes of which may never be seen again.